Earth Day Special: Highlighting Leadership in the Face of Fear
Nature's resiliency amazes me.
While I was outside today on a run with temperatures around freezing and snow swirling around me, I was surprised to see the bright pink cherry blossoms next to the Buffalo History Museum nearly in full bloom.
This made me think about leaders who, like the beautiful blossoms braving the wintry weather, are not letting the depressing and daunting aspects of COVID-19 and the global climate crisis keep them from giving others hope for a better way forward.
But, just as consistent snow squalls at the end of April can be disorienting, so can such a constant stream of chaotic and unusual news (anyone else feel like they’ve been in a Sci-Fi movie lately?).
I think all the news and social media posts are causing us to overlook leadership that could be failing us in the longterm. Luckily, however, there are remarkable leaders guiding us through this turbulent time to hopefully a much calmer future.
When Leadership Is Misleading
While we’ve all been focused on continuous COVID-19 coverage, the current president’s administration succeeded in undermining a major environmental protection.
On April 16, it changed a protection that has many environmentalists and health experts sounding alarms. It’s called the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, and it's an air pollution standard that limits the amount of the toxic pollutant mercury that power plants produce.
Recent studies showed this standard helped people in Louisville, Kentucky avoid trips to hospitals and doctor’s offices in addition to reducing inhaler use by about 17 percent (Grist).
By weakening it, the Trump administration is basically opening it up to lawsuits that prevent it from accomplishing its goal of limiting mercury emissions (New York Times). There’s also worry that this could be part of a larger tactic and trend of more sweeping enviornmental deregulation.
Mercury is a heavy metal that’s been linked to brain damage. It can be particularly dangerous to pregnant women and developing fetuses.
Now, deceptively, the regulations are not being taken away or being weakened in the most straightforward of ways.
Instead, a new rule adjusts how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the costs and benefits of reducing mercury and other toxic metal emissions (Yale.edu). While this may sound harmless, it could easily undermine legal arguments to limit these noxious pollutants (Reuters). The rule basically takes away the ability of “co-benefits” of limiting mercury to be calculated in cost-benefit analyses, thus giving a stronger argument to not limiting mercury from a cost perspective (Yale.edu).
Back in 2012, the Obama administration passed the rule forcing coal-fired power plants to cut their mercury emissions based on benefits that would come from limiting not only mercury but other particulate-matter pollutants that come out of smokestacks and pose a risk to public health—and can be limited at the same time as mercury (Reuters). Limiting these other pollutants is part of the rule’s “co-benefits.”
That year, the administration made power plants install pricey equipment to curb mercury emissions at the same time as preventing the other particulate-matter pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) (New York Times). Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory issues making it harder for particularly children and the elderly to breathe, and it creates acid rain that is harmful to trees, plants, and waterways (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency).
The price of the equipment to limit emissions of both mercury, SO2, and other pollutants cost the industry about $9.6 billion a year. While the Obama administration valued the direct benefits of limiting just mercury emissions at only about $6 million, adding the indirect benefits of health issues stemming from the mercury and other emissions increased the gains to $80 billion over five years.
The health issues the Obama administration found would be prevented each year include 13,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and 11,000 premature deaths each year(New York Times).
In 2018, Trump’s EPA ruled it wasn’t fair to include the co-benefits of limiting SO2 and other pollutants in calculating the benefits of curbing mercury emissions (Reuters). The legal-justification behind the Obama rule was officially withdrawn on April 16.
The math under the EPA controlled by Trump’s pick Andrew Wheeler says while reducing mercury costs power plants $7.4 to $9.6 billion a year, the direct health benefits add up to between $4 to $6 million per year.
Honestly, there’s something that disturbs me to my core of putting such simple price tags on the health of millions of people. This is the opposite of what needs to be happening right now as the country and the world grapple with a pandemic.
Also, as I discussed in another recent post, COVID-19 symptoms are often worse for those who have been living with higher levels of air pollution. It’s all connected.
A group of 21 health and medical organizations, including the American Lung Association, said in a statement regarding the Trump administration's recent changes for the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, “The agency rejected scientific evidence showing that limits on mercury and air toxics are ‘appropriate and necessary' to protect health, claiming that the costs of the standards outweigh the benefits. This is wholly inaccurate." (UtilityDrive).
The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gina McCarthy, called this latest move by the EPA, “an absolute abomination.” She also told Reuters, “The only ones to benefit from this are powerful polluters—at the expense of our health, and our children’s health.”
But environmentalists aren’t the only ones upset by this latest move. Utility companies that had already invested millions in technology to lessen mercury emissions are also expressing concern.
In a statement, the Utility Trade group Edison Electric Institute said, “The repeal of the underlying legal basis for MATS introduces new uncertainty and risk for companies that still are recovering the costs for installing those control technologies.” (Reuters).
Of course, not everybody is unhappy. The National Mining Association, which represents coal miners, is in support of this recent EPA decision, as the previous Obama administration rule forced many coal-fired plants out of existence.
I don’t say this to freak out any readers, but I think it can be easy to get overly absorbed into the constant stream of COVID-19 news and overlook some ways in which past beneficial leadership is being dismantled—leadership that impacts the planet’s health and thus our own.
Luckily we are not powerless—there’s an election coming up, and we’re closing in on being only half a year away (mark your calendars: the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 3).
While it may seem COVID-19 is canceling everything lately, expanding mail-in voting is seen as a pretty straight-forward solution to this issue (Politifact).
Since mail-in or absentee voting is easier in some states than others, Senator Kamala Harris has introduced a bill titled the VoteSafe Act of 2020 that would allow states to make the reforms needed to guarantee no-excuse absentee voting and early in-person voting (RollingStone).
Ensuring Democracy During a Crisis
Kamala Harris (D-California), is the first leadership figure I’d like to highlight. While her bill may sound rather simple, it aims to do something extraordinary: uphold democracy during a public health crisis.
The VoteSafe Act would provide around $5 billion spread around the states to not only ensure access to mail-in voting, but also to make polling places as safe and secure as possible (TheHill). This would include curbside voting and making sure minority communities have as much access to voting as possible, which has of course historically been a major issue in parts of the U.S.
"Even before the pandemic, Native Americans, Black and Latinx voters, and voters with disabilities too often faced long lines, inaccessible voting locations, and outright hostility by election officials," Harris said in a statement. "I’m proud to announce the VoteSafe Act because the American people deserve a comprehensive solution to ensure that voting is safe and accessible.”
This is significant from an environmental standpoint as well. Making sure the voices and votes of those in minority communities are heard could help spread environmental justice, or the movement that focuses on the disproportionate number of minority communities based around areas of immense pollution (NRDC). The Environmental Justice movement plays a key role in preserving and restoring the natural environment because it often involves those who have worked and lived near major sources of pollution for generations.
Fearless Females Restoring Faith Across the Seas
Two international women leaders are also being praised for their efforts to take on COVID-19—and they are also moving their nations towards a more sustainable future.
German Chancellor Angeal Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry and has worked as a scientific researcher, is depending on the work of highly credible scientific and public health organizations to inform her pandemic response. (The Atlantic). These include the Robert Koch Institute (a federal institution for disease control and prevention), public universities, and the Berlin Institute of Health.
This scientific-backed approach seems to be working. Although the virus has taken the lives of around 4,000 Germans as of April 20, that’s still around half of the lives lost in the state of New York alone (The Atlantic). For comparison, Germany’s population is about 80,159,662 (CIA) and New York State’s is about 19,453,561 (U.S. Census).
Merkel’s strong grounding in scientific evidence and research can also be seen in a policy she pushed through called the Climate Action Law. This remarkable legislation makes Germany’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2030 law, and it’s the foundation of the country’s ambitious long-term climate change strategy (CleanEnergyWife.org).
Now let’s turn to Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, who is not even 40, but who The Atlantic dubs a potential “most effective leader on the planet.” Ardern put her entire nation of nearly 5 million on lockdown back in March to prevent the virus’s spread.
One of the ways she gave her country a heads up about the lockdown: she appeared on an internet video in sweats, telling her citizens she would join them as they “hunker down.” While this could have been an incredibly alarming and scary move, Ardern has shown as much empathy and relatability as possible throughout the crisis, appearing in frequent Facebook live videos to reassure her citizens.
And this “hunkering down” seems to be working—New Zealand has only recorded 1,401 cases and 9 deaths, as of April 17 (Business Insider). However, it is a smaller country of only about 4,925,477 people (CIA).
Ardern is also quickly leading her nation into a future fueled on renewable energy.
In 2017, the nation sourced around 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and it aims to run on 100 percent renewables by 2035 (Futurism).
What We Can Do
First, I hope these incredible examples of leadership can inspire you, as they have me, to feel more empowered during this COVID-19 crisis and when thinking about the looming climate change crisis.
Thinking about these leaders makes me realize there are actions I can take in my everyday life to help set an example of compassion and consideration during this COVID-19 crisis.
Continuing to practice social distancing by limiting face to face contact is perhaps one of the simplest yet most effective ways to limit COVID-19’s spread, according to the CDC. And we must continue to stay 6 feet away from each other whenever possible.
While it’s been tough since I really value face-to-face contact with people, I haven’t even been meeting up with friends for walks or runs recently. On the plus side, I have found Zoom happy hours are much more fun than expected!
If you’d like to take a leadership role in spreading hope and safety while we all grapple with the pandemic’s impacts, I’ve listed a few additional ideas below:
Organize your own “Zoom” or Facetime happy hour
Making cloth masks for yourself and others—and you don’t even have to know how to sew if you follow this great tutorial. I used this to make a mask recently for my husband and although it wasn’t as cute, it worked!
Organizing a drive by parade for a birthday or any other celebration. My husband and I participated in one of these parades for a 3-year-old’s birthday on Sunday and the smile on his face and his mother’s was so uplifting.
Offer to make and drop off lunches for kids who are home from school and in food-insecure homes
Join many celebrities in reading popular children’s books via online videos
Teach a skill via online videos
Hang a positive sign in a window (a popular and adorable trend here in Buffalo is putting stuffed animals in windows for kids to see while on social distancing walks).
And during this time often dominated by negative media, we can spread uplifting news about the incredible leaders mentioned above, and we can show them our support. You can play a more active role by telling your senator to support Senator Harris’s VoteSafe Act bill (you can read the whole text here) and can even sign it here.
Other ideas include finding your own local leaders to support or organizations that are working to restore and protect our environment (I recently started volunteering with the Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association to help protect the water quality of the lovely lake I grew up on). Or you can support larger organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council by participating in their free Earth Day celebration and sharing their resources.
And finally, make sure you are registered to vote so you can support the leaders you think will lead us into the most successful and sustainable future. If you aren’t registered yet, here’s a place to get started (and here’s guidance for absentee voting or voting by mail).
Leaders for Nature
Since I am posting this on Earth Day—a day when we not only come together to appreciate our precious planet, but also recognize leadership to protect it—I also wanted to announce a new profile series: Leaders for Nature
Leaders for Nature will be a monthly profile piece. Each post will highlight the work and dedication of those using their unique skills to protect, preserve, and restore aspects of nature. This work can be anything from community gardening to writing stories that inspire others to protect the environment. My hope is to publish one new profile each month.
You can send nominations (including yourself!) to my email: email@example.com. Or if you’re on Facebook, send them to Need for Nature’s new Facebook page via a private message. And please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about this project! The goal is to inspire more action—on every level—to help keep our remarkable planet and its people healthy and safe.
I look forward to hearing your stories! While the spring snow flurries may seem relentless these days, I know that toughness and perseverance like those beautiful cherry blossoms is all around if you know where to look.
https://www.earthdaylive2020.org/?source=nrdc-homepage&referrer=group-natural-resources-defense-council-nrdc https://grist.org/energy/these-air-pollution-standards-kept-people-out-of-the-hospital-trump-just-rolled-them-back/ https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gm.html https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/NY https://www.linkedin.com/company/robert-koch-institute/